This article is the first article in a series reporting on the update of the county and cities of Kingsland and St. Marys progress after Tropical Storm Irma in September of 2017.
Hurricane season is already here, and Camden County is still recovering from last year’s combination of a nor’easter and Tropical Strom Irma and the 2016 impacts of Hurricane Matthew.
Tropical Storm Irma was considered a 500-year storm event. According to the National Weather Service, a 500-year storm event has a 1 in 500 chances of occurring in any given year. Camden County received about 20 inches of rain within a 24-48 period during Irma, and the area’s drainage and storm water management is not built for such an event which is often seen in most coastal communities in Georgia.
Camden County has undergone many changes in planning, preparation, and recovery since Irma.
So how well is the county recovering?
AllIOnGeorgia-Camden discussed the recovery and planning efforts with Assistant County Director Shawn Boatright.
Boatright said that one of the major areas the county needed to address quickly was a bridge near Lang Lane where seven families live nearby to access their homes. The original bridge, which held a weight limit of about 4 tons, was replaced with a pre-cast bridge using four 60-inch pipe culvert system that would be easily easily cleaned from underneath. The bridge can hold a 55-ton crane, according to Boatright. The funding for the new Lang Lane bridge was entirely funded by FEMA (75%) and GEMA (25%).
“That was one of our major mitigation efforts through FEMA which has been a shining star in the Southeast. The [families] have been really appreciative of what has been completed,” said Boatright.
Lang Lane Bridge was essential to the overall recovery efforts for the county. If the project was replaced with a similar 4-ton bridge, FEMA could deny future funding for short-term mitigation corrections, according to Boatright.
“Lang Lane was pressing. We had to reroute households that were not able to get to their homes, trash, mail, and safe access for EMS & Fire. Lang Lane is a complete bridge and It will handle a tremendous amount of weight,” explained Boatright.
Along with other storm-related damage, the county spent around $256,000 on the bridge and over $1.1 million in other storm mitigation efforts. Currently, $70,000 of road work maintenance related to Irma’s impact is still ongoing. Boatright explained that most of the county’s time had been designated to building Lang Lane. The attention has now turned to clean the culvert systems which are expected to be cleaned out before August. The county is working with Kingsland to help with areas near Gross Road that had severe flooding during Irma.
Other areas to receiving attention are near Kings Bay Crossing where culvert systems need correcting and Deep Creek Bridge near Union Carbide Road. However, FEMA is not able to help with those projects, and the county will need to look for other funding for completion.
“FEMA is not able to help out with anything on that issue. The state has indicated they are not going to assist, as far as extra funding,” said Boatright. Storm surge mitigation continues to be the priority in Irma recovery process.
The debris removal payments to the county have been obtained. The county received over $430,000 worth of work. Governor Nathan Deal pledged to the six coastal counties to pick up the bill on the debris removal share for local governments. FEMA paid 75 percent while the state (GEMA) paid for 25 percent of the cost.
“That was pretty significant for our area,” said Boatright.
Boatright said even though they are still managing communications with FEMA and GEMA with Irma, and the county just recently closed out all payments related to Hurricane Matthew, which grazed Camden’s coastline in 2016.
As far as Emergency Planning and Preparation, Boatright said the county has hired an experienced EMA director this past year. The planning process aligns with the “FEMA doctrine” which means that all planning consists of what to do before, during, and after the storm. Specifically, the doctrine focuses on recovery efforts and communications during and after an event.
“This is done, and we’ve received $130,000 from FEMA” in emergency preparedness efforts, said Boatright.
Flood maps have also been updated for the area and flood insurance programs have received the new maps. After last year’s flooding in non-flood zone areas, obtaining flood insurance is likely to be sought after from non-flood prone areas.
Improving Communications –
During Tropical Storm Irma, many residents complained about how the communications from the Governor’s office was not being amplified to the public about shelters, weather updates, and re-entry specific to Camden County. Communications from the county’s Code Red System was utilized widely, but the Jacksonville television news market was not updating Camden County residents of the new information.
In a recent countywide meeting, over 70 individuals and agencies reiterated this gap in communication. The organizations included Georgia Power, Southeast Georgia Health System, and various other agencies related to emergency management implementation.
“We had to rely on Jacksonville media market to get out the latest information in a wide-reaching manner. We have been in communication with them a lot on that concerning re-entry. We have spoken to [television stations] on numerous occasions and said they would assist with that. GEMA has also talked with them on that. We give them everything we give to the public; it is just a matter of if they will push it out. We will push that as much as we can this year,” said Boatright.
Boatright encourages people to sign up for Code Red alerts and to get people registered who may have significant special needs in getting out of a major storm event. The population of Camden County is about 53,000, and Boatright stated that over 100,000 individual Code Red alerts were sent out during Irma.
Another communication tool the county is looking to use for only major events is a tool called IPAWS – Integrated Public Alert and Warning System. The use of IPAWS would occur in times of significant events only, according to Boatright.
“IPAWS circumvents all radio, TV, all of everything… If we had a major piece of information that needs to get out, we could zone it in geographically. It will let any individual in the area know what is going on. They would not have to be signed up for Code Red to get anything,” explained Boatright. IPAWS will not be a cost assumed by the county, and it can be integrated into the current communications system that is already in place. “We are looking to integrate this right now.”
Payouts and funding –
Recently, Camden County, not the cities, just recently closed out payments for the damages related to Hurricane Matthew. The payouts from FEMA and GEMA are often slow as much of the request for payments must have detailed documentation. All payments for Tropical Storm Irma have not yet been realized for some of the cities within the county.
The county’s grant writing team is assisting the City of Kingsland with over 20 FEMA mitigation grants, and the process has been long.
“I was talking to one of the FEMA reps, and they said that Hurricane Andrew just closed out in parts of Florida. The County is fortunate to get Matthew closed out so quickly,” said Boatright. Hurricane Andrew was a Category 5 storm that destroyed Homestead, FL in mid-August of 1992.
The City of St. Marys and Kingsland are still mitigating storm damage, and the county has assisted them in many ways. Because the cities have more water/sewer drainage infrastructure, their recovery could be longer. AllOnGeorgia – Camden has reached out to the City of Kingsland and St. Marys for updates and plans to follow up with their continued progress.
How is the county planning ahead?
The county is looking to create a plan that includes the worst-case scenario. According to Boatright’s discussions with FEMA/GEMA, if a Category 3 hit Camden, 10 percent of the people would not return. FEMA can assist with funding, but if the county and cities do not maintain their infrastructure, disqualification from future grants is likely.
The unified messaging approach with all the agencies has been critical to getting out correct information and with future planning, according to Boatright.
“We have done some FEMA training for all of our departments, employees, and outside agencies. I think we are at a strong 8 [on a scale of 1-10] and there will always be room for improvement. We have identified the areas we are weak, and we are doing everything we can to become stronger. We always encourage the community to be a part of that by being part of the Citizens Academy,” sated Boatright.
Funding will be a critical component for planning for a “worst case scenario” event. One of the plans is to create a county master storm water drainage/management plan. The county is negotiating and coordinating with the cities for the next Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST). This SPLOST would likely be on the voting ballot next year.
“That is something we could use as a tool to really identify where we are weak, and strong areas are improvements do we need…is this suitable for this site? Can this area withstand water from a 100-year storm? It is really hard to plan for a 500-year storm event like Irma,” said Boatright.
Will that SPLOST be enough funding?
According to Boatright, it will be difficult to know if SPLOST funding will be enough because of the time it takes study those sites and bring in experts that can review those issues for the county. Much of that inspection would require hydrologic and hydraulic studies to identify specific drainage and management systems. Most storms, which impact the area, range from 25-50-year storms for which most cities build to maintain based on the cost allowed by their tax base.
Another plan is to include a comprehensive countywide transportation plan which would review bridge inventory of strength and weaknesses for vulnerabilities. Funding would come from many areas such as SPLOST along with state funding.
Public meetings are expected to be held to garner input from the public on these new plans.
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